Just a Flesh Wound

I wish I had a better story to tell you about why I am typing this with one hand (and some help from Dragon Dictate).

A shark attack would be interesting. An assassination attempt would be intriguing. Skydiving mishaps always make for good copy. An out-of-control quad copter that turns on its master would be entertaining (and would come complete with a grim, potentially viral, video).

No, the reason I am now one-handed is a little more prosaic than those scenarios.

I had finished my last shoot after a long reporting trip to Japan and the Philippines and was stacking the Pelican cases brimming with TV gear onto my cart. As I tried to bungee cord them into some semblance of security for movement, one of the cases toppled onto my left forearm. Ouch! It hurt, but I wasn’t all “911” about it. It was painful and swollen but I figured it would be okay without any medical intervention. Maybe a little bit of denial?

The next day, February 13, things seemed status quo. It was sore and swollen but seemingly no worse. Then, that night, things got worse. Both the pain and swelling increased.

So on the morning of February 14, I asked the hotel for a referral to a doctor and went to see him right away. While my concern was already growing, the look on his face when he saw my forearm got me a little more nervous.

The doctor told me he suspected that I might be having an Acute Compartment Syndrome. I had to Wiki it, but in essence it is an increase in pressure inside an enclosed space in the body. This can block blood flow causing a whole host of serious, life-threatening consequences.

He had me admitted to the hospital. Over the next few hours, I endured probably the longest, most painful experience I could ever imagine. My forearm developed some dusky discoloration, but more alarming was the numbness. I could not feel my forearm!

The doctor recommended an emergency fasciotomy to relieve the pressure. This is a gruesome enough procedure on its own, but the he was clear that the problem was progressing rapidly and there was a clear and present threat to my limb.

It was getting real. Of course I wasn’t awake for the action but I was told later that things tanked even further once I was on the table. And when I lost blood pressure during the surgery due to the complications of compartment syndrome, the doctor made a real-time call and amputated my arm just above the elbow. He later told me it all boiled down to a choice…between a life and a limb.

So I woke up to a new reality in the hospital. It’s been a challenging week dealing with the phantom pain, the vicissitudes of daily life with one hand and the worries about what lies ahead.

But I am alive and I’m grateful for that. Please don’t worry about me. I’m sure I can cope just fine. If I need your help, I promise I will ask.

Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you. Actually, I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now – in more ways than one.

Miles O’Brien (@milesobrien) is the science correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a regular correspondent for the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE and the National Science Foundation Science Nation series. For nearly seventeen of his thirty years in the news business, he worked for CNN as the Science and Space Correspondent and the anchor of various programs, including American Morning.

This post originally appeared on O’Brien’s personal website, milesobrien.com.

3 replies »

  1. Miles: you have incredible grace under pressure to be able to express yourself so soon after a life-changing event and in such as compelling way.

    The entire scenario is a nice encapsulation of how quickly life can change and how apparently straightfoward clinical situations can rapidly spiral downward. In this case, it shows, too, how forcefully and decisively well-trained medical care providers can act to preserve a life, even at the cost of a limb.

    If it had to happen at any time, perhaps there is a silver lining that it happened now, during a period when changes in technology are altering the lives of amputees in ways never before envisioned. Those stories, in turn, change us and make us realize the kinds of limits we, the whole-bodied, place on ourselves.

    I wish you nothing but the best of luck going forward, Miles, I have enjoyed your work over many years. I can think of few people more capable than you are of recounting to us what this tale of recovery, rehabilitation, and restoration will look and feel like.

  2. You have a great attitude Miles, best of luck in your recovery. This just goes to show how in medicine the seemingly benign can turn into something very serious, very quickly. It looks as if you received excellent care.

  3. MOB –

    The composure you’re showing here is frankly highly impressive. To be back at work and writing this only days after this tragedy is awe inspiring. Let us know what we can do to help / connect you with people to help get through this, put you in touch with people doing work in this area. You should talk some of the guys we know at the VA. There are some interesting things being done in the Valley as well …